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Will Styler

Associate Teaching Professor of Linguistics at UC San Diego

Director of UCSD's Computational Social Science Program


This was originally posted on my blog, Notes from a Linguistic Mystic in 2012. See all posts

I’ve recently been reading Mastering Type: The Essential Guide to Typography for Print and Web Design, which is an amazingly engaging book on the interesting subject of typography and graphic design.

Well, last night, I was reading the section about kerning, the subtle adjustment of the spacing between individual pairs of letters, I found this gem stashed away in a picture caption:

In the comic book world, the word flick was banned from use for fear that when set in all uppercase letters, the L and I would run together and form an unacceptable word. (Batman Unmasked, Will Brooker, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001, p. 63) Take care that any word being kerned does not kern so tightly that it forms another word. 1

Put more visually:

This prohibition makes more sense in the comic world than elsewhere, given that comic captions are often both hand-written and set in all caps, but still, this is the first instance I’ve heard of a word being banned outright based not on meaning or usage, but based solely on the potential for visual confusability with another naughty word. The lengths that we’ll go to to avoid taboos is absolutely fascinating.

Although this particular overlap may seem isolated or unlikely, poor kerning (“keming”2) resulting in unintentionally dirty (or hilarious) words is not all that uncommon (to be fair, some of these are spacing and tracking issues instead, but they’re still quite funny).

So, we must all band together, space our letters properly, and with a thunderous shout cry “FLICK BAD KERNING”!